Joel Osteen
Pastor Joel Osteen of Houston’s Lakewood Church, pictured in 2010.

The grass is greener where you water it.

Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.

Work until your signature becomes an autograph.

There are a lot of positivity messages out there – from memes on social media, to motivational speakers and self-help books. But when those messages come from a religious leader, how does it affect people’s behavior?

A new three-part study from the University of Toronto aimed to better understand that and used Pastor Joel Osteen of Houston’s Lakewood Church to find out.

What they discovered was that when believers were exposed to so-called prosperity gospel messages they were more likely to then engage in risky financial behavior. Study participants listened to short clips from Osteen’s sermons and then played a simulated game where they essentially made bets.

The study’s lead author Nick Hobson and his colleagues studied their behavior.

“People exposed to even a brief two- or three-minute prosperity gospel sermon or message were more likely to show optimistic bias, to show high levels of positive emotion, and finally they were more likely to engage in financial risk-taking behaviors,” Hobson, a former University of Toronto Ph.D. candidate, told Houston Matters producer Michael Hagerty.

But Hobson and his colleagues wanted to see if it was just religious people who responded that way. So they played the same messages from Osteen to atheists – but disguised his voice and removed any religious references.

“When we framed it to the atheists as a motivational speech, then they look no different than the believers,” Hobson said.

The takeaway: humans of all kinds respond to these kinds of messages in the right context. The faithful respond when the message comes from a religious leader. The non-religious respond when it comes from a secular source.

In the audio above, Hobson discusses with Hagerty the study and its findings. Then, Hagerty discusses how prosperity gospel is defined, its basis in in scripture, and whether it’s fair to characterize Osteen as a purveyor of it with Father Chris Valka of the University of St. Thomas.

Father Chris Valka, Univ. of St. Thomas
Father Chris Valka is the chaplain and director of campus ministry at the University of St. Thomas.


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